One bottle of scotch. Four bottles of wine. Forty-eight beers. For most, that’s a decent long-weekend haul at the liquor store. For Séan McCann, that was just another day at the office.
As a multi-instrumentalist for Great Big Sea, McCann helped supply the foot-stomping, pint-spilling backbeat to Canada’s pre-eminent party band for 20 years. And in that context, the aforementioned booze inventory – the contents of his personal daily backstage rider – simply comprised his tools of the trade. As he’s inclined to say, “that band was a great place for an alcoholic to hide.”
But five years ago, at age 45, McCann summoned the will to quit drinking – and shortly thereafter, his band. “I was sober for my last tour, and it was brutal,” he recalls. “I think my bandmates expected me to fail, because I had tried to quit and failed before, and that failure left me depressed many times. It was a hard place to be. But that was it – I was like, ‘I want to survive.’”
Following his split from Great Big Sea, McCann embarked on a different sort of touring: to mental hospitals, recovery centres, and wellness conferences, spreading a music-as-therapy message to fellow addicts.
But while speaking at a 2014 event in London, Ontario, McCann was forced to confront the fact that his alcoholism wasn’t simply an occupational hazard of playing with a rowdy roots-rock band. During a Q&A with the audience, one attendee stood up and revealed his addiction was the aftershock of being molested by his minor-league hockey coach. Following that confession, McCann publicly acknowledged for the first time that he, too, had been repeatedly sexually abused by a priest he had befriended as a teen.
“I was still in denial about that, even when I quit drinking, even though it was the cause of my problems,” McCann says today. “I put my past right out in the open in a big way and, man, did I ever learn a huge lesson that day, and take a huge load off.”
Since that moment of reckoning, McCann has channeled his experiences into two homespun solo albums – 2014’s Help Your Self and this year’s The Sean McCann Song Book Vol. 1: You Know I Love You – that promote an inspirational, self-help philosophy.
But these modest, self-released efforts are contributing to a much larger conversation happening across the Canadian music industry about mental-health awareness. And it’s one that’s uniting disparate bands and brands – from Serena Ryder’s spokesperson role for Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to Fucked Up growler Damian Abraham’s advocacy work for VICE. More and more artists are opening up about their struggles with addiction, anxiety, and depression, in the hope of effecting change – whether it’s to simply make fellow sufferers out there feel less alone, or pressure governments to re-think their entire approach to mental healthcare.
“Crazy.” “Crazy on You.” “Let’s Go Crazy.” “Crazy in Love.” The history of pop music is essentially one of celebrating psychosis – of rendering mania in euphoric and heroic terms. This poetic license extends to how we view the artists themselves: From Brian Wilson to Kanye West, we romanticize eccentricity as a byproduct of genius. And when big-name artists suffer a public breakdown, it’s easy for us armchair psychiatrists to chalk it up to the pressures of fame. Then we sit back, grab the popcorn, and watch the inevitable comeback narrative play out on the awards show stage.
But for the average working musician – the sort who can’t afford to treat their troubles with a six-month stint at an elite rehab facility – mental illness is less a public soap opera than a private hell: a mundane, insidious condition that threatens their very livelihood.
As any musician will tell you, touring is one of the least secure, most strenuous means of eking out a living. And it’s beset by all sorts of extreme factors – financial uncertainty, long hours, claustrophobic travel conditions, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, mind-numbingly repetitive routines, unhealthy eating, loneliness, homesickness – that can prove perilous for those with a pre-disposition to anxiety and addiction. The supports that exist in traditional workplace environments – HR departments, counseling, stress leave – just aren’t there for you when you’re trying to figure out whether your $50 gig will buy you enough gas to make it to the next town.
From an outside vantage point, Carmen Elle appears to be living the dream. Her electro-pop ensemble DIANA debuted in 2012 with a blog-buzzed single (“Born Again”), which lead to deals with renowned labels (Paper Bag in Canada; Jagjaguwar in the U.S.) for their album, and a foothold in the festival circuit.
Most musicians in her position would be eager to capitalize on that momentum by releasing a follow-up album. For Elle, the prospect absolutely terrified her. Heavy touring for DIANA’s Perpetual Surrender album had the effect of exacerbating travel-related anxieties she’d been battling since she was a child; each concert became an endurance test in whether she could make it through a whole set without triggering a full-blown panic attack.
“It’s more acute than just having nerves, or needing to have a drink and feeling okay afterward,” Elle says of her onstage jitters. “I had a really bad panic attack onstage last summer in Montréal – I feel like I blacked out. I remember staring at the exit sign the whole time, and I felt so close to just ripping my guitar off and running, like, ‘I’m gonna puke! I’m gonna die!’”
DIANA have just released their sophomore effort, Familiar Touch, a record that “I really didn’t want to come out,” Elle admits, fearing the promotional commitments that lay ahead. “I’m just not built for touring the way other people are. As a band, we’ve had to change the way we communicate. Before, [my bandmates] withheld a lot of touring information until the last possible second and they hoped I would just come through. They’d get super-stressed approaching me with tours, and I got super-stressed being on tours, and we all started to get cranky and resentful. But I’m more open about the things I feel I can’t do, and they’re accepting of that.”
Elle’s also grateful for her bandmates’ ability to ward off her encroaching anxiety attacks with well-timed doses of humour. She recalls a drive through California where she was convinced she was suffering from altitude sickness. Their response? To laugh in her face. “Sometimes,” Elle says, “just somebody pointing out the absurdity of your situation is helpful.”
Newfoundland singer-songwriter Amelia Curran can likewise attest to how small steps can lead to great strides. For much of her adult life, Curran has grappled with anxiety and depression, and in her experience, she’s learned that “sometimes, the solutions are so simple it’s disappointing. It can come down to nutrition and sleeping habits and checking your blood-sugar – and those are things you flat out lose on the road if you’re not very disciplined,” she says. “Corporate Canada and bureaucratic Canada are fast to adopt mental health in the workplace as a platform, and that’s really great for office structures. But for musicians, we have to define our workplace, and it gets really complicated, even without a mental-health struggle.”
To that end, Curran has partnered with the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit charity founded in 2010 by music industry veterans Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg that provides assistance to musicians and attendant workers – both in the form of 24/7 counselling (by phone or webchat) and financial aid (procured through major sponsors, including SOCAN). “There was nowhere in the Canadian music community for people to go for emergency relief,” says Unison executive director Sheila Hamilton of the Fund’s formation. “Musicians are workers; they’re on the road and they have the same stressors as regular people. If they need help with paying the rent and groceries, we offer short-term assistance to get them on their feet.”
Curran is but one of many renowned artists who’ve campaigned on behalf of Unison, but her activism goes way beyond advocating for her fellow musicians. In 2014, she and filmmaker friend Roger Maunder released a video featuring various notable, placard-wielding Newfoundlanders –McCann included – to raise mental-health awareness and dispel the stigmas surrounding it. The video’s viral momentum inspired Curran to launch a website, It’s Mental, to lobby the Newfoundland and Labrador government to implement long overdue mental-healthcare reforms. “These are decades-long struggles for minimal services in a lot of rural areas,” she says. “We’re ignoring entire communities of people until something horrible happens.”
It’s an effort that would’ve seemed improbable to Curran just a few years ago, when her depression got so severe, it would sideline her for months at a time. Coming to terms with mental illness is a deeply personal matter, and many understandably opt to suffer in silence rather than deal with the potential consequences, from social ostracization to diminished employability, of disclosing it publicly. But as the likes of Curran, McCann, and Elle have seen, courage can be contagious, transforming an isolating affliction into a communal cause. And as their stories show, conversation can be just as potent a remedy as pharmaceuticals.
“I’ve talked about depression and anxiety a whole lot,” says Curran, “and it’s something that I live with and balance and manage to varying degrees of success. But even now, I underestimate the value of my own story. If that’s something that speaks to other people and helps them, then I’m not shy about it.”
Her friend McCann offers a more succinct prescription: “A secret can kill you. The only way to defeat a secret is to tell it.”